Braille Monitor                                                 October 2011

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My Adventures with the iPhone

by Michael Freeman

Mike FreemanFrom the Editor: Many of you will remember that the National Federation of the Blind presented Apple with a Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award for its pioneering work enabling blind people to use the ever-present and popular touchscreen. The strategy employed to make touchscreens usable by the blind is featured in many Apple products, and arguably the most popular of these is the iPhone. In the article which follows, Mike Freeman, member of the national board of directors, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, and president of the Diabetes Action Network of the National Federation of the Blind, describes his initial reluctance to become involved with anything that used a touchscreen, buying the device, and undertaking the learning that now makes his iPhone an invaluable tool in his arsenal of technology. Here is what he has to say:

I first heard about the iPhone shortly after it was introduced with much media fanfare in the spring of 2007. Given its touchscreen interface, I was not surprised that the iPhone wasn’t accessible by the blind, and this was soon confirmed by numerous complaints on blindness-related email lists. I first observed an iPhone in use on my way to the NFB convention in Atlanta that summer when a boy across the aisle from me was using one and was obviously enjoying both the device and being lucky enough to have the newest whiz-bang technology.

For the next two years I didn’t give the iPhone another thought except to manifest the same contempt for it that most of my blind colleagues had and to rejoice in hearing of all the glitches, failures, and problems Apple was having with the device. I was vaguely aware that NFB leaders were having discussions with Apple about the inaccessibility of various flavors of Mac computers and the iPod and iPhone, but I didn’t think much about it.

Things changed in the summer of 2009. By that time Apple had introduced the VoiceOver screen reader for Macs as part of its newer versions of OS10, and just before the NFB convention I learned that VoiceOver had been made to work on the iPhone. I remained skeptical that any touchscreen interface for the blind could be made that would be both functional and efficient.

During the research and development committee meeting at the 2009 NFB convention, however, I observed a demonstration of the iPhone by Sarah Cranston. It was obvious that, while there would be a substantial learning curve before one could be proficient using an iPhone, the task was by no means impossible and that, if one persevered, one would end by having a smartphone that would be as accessible as any other phone on the market using the specialized screen-reading software developed for these phones. This was confirmed when I got to play a bit with an iPhone during the November 2009 meeting of the NFB board of directors. I played with some of the controls and discovered, to my immense delight, that I could actually get the phone to do what I wished. But I still was reluctant to take the plunge. After all, I was happy with my inaccessible cellphone; I could make and receive calls though I couldn’t access a contacts list. However, if I couldn’t remember the phone numbers of those with whom I wished to communicate or get numbers from my notetaker, I thought myself in pretty bad shape.

In June 2010 Apple introduced the iPhone4. My wife Connie began to make noises about getting an iPhone. I figured that, if she got one, I’d take the plunge and get one also. (Connie tells the story differently: while she admits to thinking about getting an iPhone, she says that she wanted to support a company putting major emphasis on accessible technology for the blind and that I was the one who first broached the subject of iPhone-acquisition.) In any event, after the NFB national convention we went down to the AT&T Store and bought two iPhones. The clerk was able to begin setting up my iPhone for accessibility, but my wife assisted in getting all the accessibility features going (she is sighted). If one loads iTunes on one’s PC or Mac and masters the somewhat quirky interface (more on this later), one can independently set the iPhone up for use with VoiceOver without sighted assistance.

I approached learning to use the iPhone with a can-do attitude. In other words, I wasn’t going to tolerate failure. I figured that, if Sarah Cranston could use an iPhone, so could I. I was not going to let myself become frustrated, nor was I going to give up immediately because the iPhone was doing all sorts of things I didn’t want it to do.

The first thing I did was to bring up the VoiceOver-gesture practice screen that tells you what gesture you are making, according to the iPhone. The iPhone requires a different touch than do other devices with membrane control keyboards such as microwave ovens, and this gesture practice screen gave an excellent opportunity to get the feel of the iPhone and get the touch right.

I next explored all the application programs--apps for short--that came with the iPhone. As part of this process I went through the Settings application, exploring each menu, and in the process set up my email accounts. I had done this many times on other computer systems so did not find this overly burdensome. Having to enter the names of accounts, user-names, incoming and outgoing mail servers, and other such data introduced me to entering text using the iPhone. Once I discovered the various character entry modes and set the iPhone up for what Apple calls “touch-typing,” I was off and running.

What cool apps! I could look at the weather, surf the web, get my compass heading, enter notes and voice memos, set wake-up alarms…what fun! Next I discovered the App Store and the iTunes store. I was like a kid in a candy shop. I had listened to many radio stations on the Internet, but it was often a somewhat esoteric process--at least in the beginning. Now I discovered many Internet radio apps that allowed me to listen to Internet radio stations by simply looking them up and hitting play. I finally settled on two mainstream broadcast apps--TuneIn Radio and ooTunes. Did I wish to hear the many police and fire channels available on the Internet? No problem: many apps allow the iPhone user to listen to these channels. Did I wish to listen to air traffic control channels? Again, no problem: I found several apps to let me listen to them. I discovered apps that allowed me to use my iPhone as a metronome, look up the nutrient content for my favorite fast foods, listen to major league baseball, hear and read more news than I could handle, have access to a dictionary and thesaurus, have access to WebMD content, read famous quotations, look at all my bank and credit card accounts, identify colors, play several sound games, determine my location by using the global positioning system, and even identify paper money. Then there are the navigation utilities that tell about points of interest in the immediate vicinity or give directions for navigating a route.

I discovered the iBookStore. If one downloads the iBooks app, one can purchase and read books from this store--and the books are fully accessible. Now there’s Blio for the iPhone, so one can read books from the Blio bookstore. Bookshare has also come out with Read2Go, so one can read Bookshare books on the iPhone. In short, I discovered the meaning of the rather pat phrase heard everywhere nowadays: “There’s an app for that!” As people much younger than I would say, awesome!

This spring my wife took me to a Portland Winterhawks hockey game. Naturally I brought along a radio and, of course, my iPhone. When I tried to tune in the game on the radio in the arena, the signal was very faint. When I was finally able to tune it in, I discovered (much to my chagrin) that the station wasn’t covering the Winterhawks game as it normally did but instead was covering a University of Oregon baseball game. Not to worry, though: I grabbed my trusty iPhone, fired up ooTunes, and found the Internet stream for the opposition team, the Seattle Thunderbirds. I was able to follow the game, albeit thirty seconds behind the action and from the perspective of the opposition team (they lost badly to the Winterhawks).

I now have a lot of music on my iPhone (the iTunes app is very easy to use), and, if I want more variety, the Pandora Radio app for the iPhone is accessible. I am amazed at what this little device can do.

If you’re wondering whether you should take the plunge and buy an iPhone, I have this advice: if you’re willing to put up with a learning curve to use the iPhone and are willing to do a little reading, I say go for it. At this writing the iPhone is still the only smartphone that’s virtually fully accessible right out of the box. While you’re in the throes of self-pity and frustration as you are learning the touchscreen interface, just remember that there’s a learning curve for sighted people; it’s just that the sighted have had access to touchscreen devices for a few years longer than we have so are a bit more familiar with them than are we. Persevere and you shall succeed.

Tips and Resources

There are a number of things I wish I’d known when I began learning to use my iPhone. Some of these were explained in the user manual that’s available using a bookmark in the iPhone’s Safari web browser, but I somehow didn’t understand their significance or realize their implications. I’m going to set some of these down, but, before doing so, I’m going to recommend some resources that will tell you more than you wish to know about the iPhone and iTunes. I consider these to be must-read material for new iPhone owners. The best of these is the book Getting Started with the iPhone by Dean Martineau and Anna Dresner; it is available from the National Braille Press in many formats. This explains virtually all aspects of using an iPhone, including working with VoiceOver, using the many apps that come with the iPhone, connecting and using the iPhone with a Braille display, buying and using third-party apps, and trouble-shooting iPhone problems. Although I discovered much of the material covered in this book by trial and error, I wish I’d had the book when I bought my iPhone, and I still learned a thing or two by reading the book.

The next iPhone-related resource is a website: <>. This website for blind and visually impaired users contains tips and tricks for doing various iPhone-related tasks as well as evaluations of many third-party (that is, not produced by Apple) apps for accessibility. There are other such sites, but this one is the one I’ve used the most.

Another great resource is the website <>. That is pronounced “All With My iPhone.” On this site are wonderful demonstrations and reviews of iPhone apps by Cory Ballard. The reviews are also available as podcasts.

Sooner or later most people using an iPod, iPhone, or iPad will need to use the iTunes program. An excellent tutorial that will get one started on using the PC version of iTunes can be found in Episodes forty-nine and fifty of Freedom Scientific’s “FSCast” podcasts. These are available for streaming or download by going to the Freedom Scientific website, <> and putting “FSCast” in the search box then looking at the search results. While the explanations are JAWS-oriented, most of the iTunes controls and the method of navigating iTunes are applicable for other screen readers as well. (I have verified this by using the NVDA screen reader with iTunes.) Since these podcasts weren’t available when I bought my iPhone, I spent an exasperated weekend trying to figure out iTunes until I called up AppleCare and worked with a person who actually fired up a PC on her end and was able to talk me through navigating iTunes. In truth, it isn’t very hard, although the interface is not quite what one is used to in Windows apps.

Now to the tips, tricks, and observations. These are in no particular order.

1. One of the first things to do when setting up the iPhone for access by the blind is to turn on the “Triple-click Home” feature. When enabled and the Home key is pressed three times quickly, VoiceOver is turned off if it is on and on if it is off. Being able to turn VoiceOver off temporarily comes in handy when using certain games or when using certain alarm clock and radio apps that have alarms that sound with radio broadcasts, sounds, or music chosen by the user. These alarms don’t always work properly unless VoiceOver is turned off. Yet being able to turn VoiceOver on easily is necessary for a blind person to use the iPhone effectively.

2. Wearing earbuds or a headset while making phone calls when much keypad entry is required will make things a lot easier. The iPhone has a way to make the speaker available during telephone calls using VoiceOver by tilting the phone horizontally, since one would have trouble finding the Speaker button. But this sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Wearing a headset disables this mechanism, and one can hear both the phone call and VoiceOver through the headset.

3. As one moves one’s finger across the iPhone screen, one hears various names of apps or fields spoken. The screen for the sighted looks exactly like this with little squares for the icons; what one hears is in the exact physical location on the screen where one places one’s finger.

4. The one-fingered left- and right-swipe gestures move one between fields; one doesn’t need to touch them on the screen if one is supposed to do something with that field. For example, to double-tap it, one can do the double-tap gesture anywhere on the screen; one doesn’t actually have to find the field.

5. The three-fingered triple-tap toggles the screen-curtain feature. This is VoiceOver’s nomenclature for turning the screen display on and off; with screen curtain on, the display is turned off as it is when the iPhone is locked, so a blind person can operate the iPhone with the screen darkened, saving a bit of battery power. When turning the iPhone on, as soon as one hears “VoiceOver on” and perhaps other information, one can do a three-fingered triple-tap to turn screen-curtain on from the get-go, even before unlocking the iPhone.

6. If VoiceOver is yammering away and one wishes to shut the iPhone up, doing a two-finger single-tap will do the job.

7. If the option is enabled, typing two spaces rapidly (within a half second) causes the iPhone to enter a period followed by a space into the text being typed. When the unit is in touch-typing mode, doing this may seem daunting at first. With a bit of practice, however, one can learn to hold and release the spacebar (thus entering the first space) followed by another hold-and-release of the spacebar within a half second, resulting in a period followed by a space being entered into the text one is typing. Likewise, if one hits the Shift key four times in quick succession (two double-taps)--for example, four times within a half second--the iPhone can be set in Caps Lock mode so that subsequent characters typed are all in uppercase. Of course double-tapping the Shift key again will release the Caps Lock.

If one isn’t actually holding an iPhone, these tips may seem overwhelming, but they will make perfectly good sense when one has the unit and tries to start making efficient use of it. While I emphasize that using the iPhone has a steep learning curve, if one wants the power of a smartphone, this investment of time and energy is well worth it.

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